American director Jules Dassin's 1955 French gangster flick Rififi (Thursday, March 17, Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m., 271-4090) is one of those movies that inspired film geeks, or what the French call geeques du cinema (no, they don't), long before anyone ever heard of one. Its influence is apparent in films by contemporaries like Jean-Pierre Melville, who helmedthe masterful Le Samourai and Bob le Flambeur (which was written by Auguste Le Breton, who also wrote Rififi), as well as cinematic descendants such as Quentin Tarantino (surprise, surprise), who appropriated a few tricks for his own crime caper, Reservoir Dogs.
Set in an achromatic Paris, Rififi is your classic "one last job" story: Ex-con tries to go on the straight-and-narrow but can't resist the lure of the game and the promise of a final big payday. After Tony the Stephanois returns from the pokey, little brother Jo the Swede (note to self: earn goon nickname) attempts to enlist his help in a jewelry store robbery. Tony initially declines, then comes back with a couple of ideas on how to ensure an even bigger knockover, with the store's safe as the new target.
Whenever anyone talks about Rififi, they invariably mention the expertly crafted, mindblowing heist scene that clocks in at 30 tense minutes... and is done completely without dialogue. (Apparently some were concerned that the intricate sequence is basically a how-to for aspiring thieves.) And like any decent film noir, the conflict doesn't arrive via the cops but by internal strife, greed, and even badder guys who got hip to the crime and now want a piece of the action.
Dassin --- who also plays the Italian safecracker here under the pseudonym Perlo Vita --- was a rising star in 1940s Hollywood thanks to films like Naked City and Thieves' Highway, but by 1950 he was unemployed and living in Europe due to blacklisting. And despite winning the prize for directing at the 1955 Cannes International Film Festival, Rififi wasn't able to secure an American theatrical distributor until the end of the century because of Dassin's political leanings.
The final thoughts here do not belong to me but to New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. They're excerpted from a review that ran at the time of Rififi's initial release, and if you listen very closely, you can almost hear this as a voiceover on one of those cheesy, fast-talking trailers from the '50s that feature droppers, tomatoes, roscoes, Chinese angles and words that come flying at you from the screen.
"Do you want to see a tough gangster picture? Do you want to see a crime film that makes the characters of Mickey Spillane seem like sissies and, at the same time, gives you the thrill of being an inside participant in a terrific Parisian robbery? Then go to see Rififi!"
--- Dayna Papaleo